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As per my understanding, both Buddhist idealists and Advaitins hold the external world to be unreal. Also, according to Shankaracharya's own commentary of Brahma Sutra, the doctrine of unreality of the world is refuted in Brahma Sutra Adhyaya 2 Pada 2 Topic 5.

Here's the relevant part:-

Topic-5: Buddhist Idealism Refuted

28 (External objects are) not non-existent, for they are perceived.

29 And because of the difference of nature (the waking state is) not (false) like dream etc.

30 (Tendencies) can have no existence since (according to you) external things are not perceived.

31 And (the ego-consciousness cannot be the abode), for it is momentary.

32 Besides (this view stands condemned), it being untenable from every point of view.

Moreover, in his own commentary Shankaracharya on Brahma Sutra Adhyaya 2 Pada 2 verse 28, he says:

To all this we (the Vedântins) make the following reply.--The non-existence of external things cannot be maintained because we are conscious of external things.

Doesn't this go against the Advaitic idea of unreality of the external world? Or is there some fundamental difference between the Vijñānavāda's 'non-reality' and the Advatic 'non-reality'?

Also, it would be extremely helpful if I could get a quote from Shankaracharya or other Advaita Philosophers regarding this specific issue.

2 Answers 2

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I'm going to try to answer this from the writings on Ādi Śaṅkaracharya himself, and Śrīharṣa, a 12th-century Indian philosopher of Advaita Vedanta. Although his main center of critique was the Nyāya Darśan, however, Vijñānavāda isn't left out from the maestro's sharp reasonings, as we'll see.

1. Doesn't this go against the Advaitic idea of unreality of the external world?

No

As expounded here: Chapter 8. Śaṅkara Bhagavatpāda

Śaṅkara does not deny the validity of the known world as is generally thought. He accepts it but denies any original and separate existence for it, apart from and independent of Brahman.

He propagated three levels of truth, viz.,

  • the Vyāvahārika Satya,
  • the Prātibhāsika Satya and
  • the Pāramārthika Satya.

Thus, the relative existence of the known world is not a total non-existence, like the son of a barren woman. Some measure of reality is given even to the phantom world of apparitions and dreams called Prātibhāsika Satya. The reality, being the plenary unconditional experience beyond the concepts and the categories of the mind, it is only the Śruti that can testify to its truth. All the same a rational explanation of the contradictions that we see in the relative world becomes necessary and this reconciliation of the two seemingly irreconcilable principles is done in terms of the doctrine of Māyā and Adhyāsa (Superimpostion).... The three ideas of truth, illusion and absolute non-existence, or in other words, ‘Satya’, ‘Mithyā’, and ‘Atyantāsat’, are expounded with the illustrations of the ‘Supreme one’, the serpent in the rope, and the son of a barren woman, etc.

......

Thus Śaṅkara’s definition of the world is not that of an illusionist as has been misrepresented by some, who denies reality to that which is seen and felt by us, in our daily activities. Śaṅkara has never said so. On the other hand, he reconciles our various experiences by the device of the various levels of truth.



2. Or is there some fundamental difference between the Vijñānavāda's 'non-reality' and the Advatic 'non-reality'?

Yes

Sri-Harsha starts with the thesis that none of our cognitions ever require any proof for their validity. The Advaita of Sankara and the idealistic school of Buddhism (Vijnanavada) differs in this that while the latter holds that everything including the cognition is unreal and indeterminable, the former holds that knowledge is identical with Reality from which the entire universe proceeds and, therefore, knowledge is real and the entire universe is indeterminable. It is this distinction between the Advaita school of Sankara and the idealistic school of Buddhism that the critics of Advaita often overlook when they charge that Advaita is akin to the Vijnana-vada school of Buddhism. Indefinability is the very nature of the objects of the world. Sri-Harsha contends that no amount of ingenuity can succeed in defining the nature of the objects which have no definable existence. All the definitions of the objects put forward by the Nyaya writers are shown to be faulty even according to the canons of logical discussions and definitions accepted by the Naiyayika. Sri-Harsha contends that no definitions of the phenomenal world are possible and that the world of phenomena and all our so-called experiences of it is indefinable. So the Advaitins could affirm that the indeterminable nature of the world is proved. Sri-Harsha does not believe in the reality of his arguments. He employs them without any assumption of their reality or unreality. If the arguments of Sri-Harsha are proved to be unreal then that establishes his own contention that nothing except the self-luminous Brahman is real. Sri-Harsha is interested only in refuting the definitions of the Naiyayikas. And, his conclusion is that the manifold world of our experience is indefinable and the one Brahman is absolutely and ultimately real.

Chapter 19. Śrī-harṣa

Quoting from this book - Preceptors of Advaita compiled by T.M.P. Mahadevan

PUBLISHED BY: SRI KANCHI KAMAKOTI SANKARA MANDIR SECUNDERABAD 1968



Also, it would be extremely helpful if I could get a quote from Shankaracharya or other Advaita Philosophers regarding this specific issue.

As elaborated in the '2nd' part of the answer Śrī Harṣa categorically did differentiate between Buddhism's śūnyavāda/anātmavāda and the svayaṃprakāśavāda of the Advaita Vedanta.

I'm providing the direct quote by Śrī Harṣa which he makes in his celebrated work - Khaṇḍana-khaṇḍa-khādya (literally means ‘sweets of refutation’)

॥ इति स्वप्रकाशवादः ॥ शून्यवाद और स्वयंप्रकाशवाद में भेद ।

एवं च सति सौगतब्रह्मवादिनोरयं विशेषो यदादिमः सर्वमेवानिर्वचनीर्य वर्णयति तदुक्तं भगवता लङ्कावतारे "बुद्धया विविच्यमानानां स्वभावो नावधार्यते। अतो निरभिलप्यास्ते निःस्वभावाश्च देशिताः” इति विज्ञानव्यतिरिक्तं पुनरिदं विश्वं सदसयां विलक्षणं ब्रह्मवादिनः संगिरन्ते । तथाहिनेदं सद्भवितुमर्हति, वक्ष्यमाणदूषणग्रस्तत्वात् । नाप्यसदेव, तथा सति लौकिकविचारकाणां सर्वव्यवहारव्याहत्यापत्तेः ॥१॥

  • English translation of the above-quoted Sanskrit text by Ganganath Jha from here.
  1. The difference between the Bauddha and the Vedantin then comes to this -- the Bauddha regards everything, without exception, as anirvachanīya, i.e, undefinable; as (Lord) Buddha himself has declared in the Latikavatara Sutra (II. 173)— “when we come rationally to examine things, we cannot ascertain the nature of anything; hence all things must be declared to be undefinable and devoid of any assignable nature or character". __ The Vedantins on the other hand declare that this entire Universe, with the exception of Cognition or Consciousness, is neither absolutely real nor absolutely unreal. It cannot be absolutely real, because this view is beset by difficulties which we shall point out later on; nor can we regard it as absolutely unreal since this would strike at the root of all empirical thought, speech, and action of intelligent men of the world.
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    Thanks this was very helpful! I have one request, if possible, can you please add the name (if possible with its link) of the original work of Sriharsa that comments on the Vijnanavada's view. This would be very helpful for anyone who would like to delve deep into this topic. Jan 25 at 0:57
  • @HoaxHorrorStories . I added the relevant original quote by Śrī Harṣa from his noted work - Khaṇḍana-khaṇḍa-khādya. Hope that clears your doubts. P.S. Thanks for accepting my answer. :))
    – Vivikta
    Jan 25 at 16:18
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    Thank you, that was very helpful. Jan 25 at 19:02
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As you rightly pointed out, Advaita Vedanta does not reject the existence of the external world. Existence has different gradations according to Advaita Vedanta. Basically three categories: unreal, appearance and reality.

Unreal things are like a triangular circle or virgin birth. These things can not exist because it contradicts our logic.

The second category is appearance. There is something, but we perceive that something as something else. Thus it can be subrated by other experiences (Subration is basically cancellation. When we disvalue some previously appraised object because it contradicts our new experience is known as subration). According to Advaita Vedanta, our external world is an appearance, but NOT unreal. However, if we stick to Advaita terminology, the external world is unreal for a Buddist Vijnanavadin. Sankara is opposing that categorically.

Reality is that which can not be subrated by any other experience. That's why this is known as the ultimate.

I will explain this with a metaphor. Suppose you are a big fan of Amitabh Bacchan - the iconic Indian filmstar. There is a statue of Amitabh Bacchan in a museum. You can take a selfie with it. But suppose, if you see the real Amitabh Bacchan enters the museum, then you would love to take a selfie with the person, not the statue anymore. So we can say that the person is the reality, but the statue is an appearance, but nonetheless, it exists.

Source: Advaita Vedanta: a philosophical reconstruction by Eliot Deutsch (https://archive.org/details/advaitavedantaph0000deut), Chapter 2

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    Thanks this was very helpful! I have one request, if possible, can you please add some quotes from the book that you mentioned? It would complement your explanation (which was great btw) and make this a very comprehensive answer for those who read it at a later time. Jan 25 at 0:54
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    @HoaxHorrorStories I have added the link to the book. Just 129 pages long. It would be a bit difficult to add quotes from the book. As it explains a complicated thing in a lucid way. A random passage won't make much sense out of context. That's what I think, I may be wrong. You can read it and see. Jan 25 at 4:14
  • Thank you so much, its is very helpful indeed. Jan 25 at 14:53

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